NEW YORK (Reuters) - Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday defended the Justice Department's record of financial crime enforcement, while acknowledging that some of the behavior that sparked the financial crisis did not rise to the level of criminality.
Speaking before an audience of about 400 students and professors at Columbia University, where he received both undergraduate and law school degrees, Holder said the Justice Department has taken "bold, unprecedented steps" toward combatting financial crime.
The Obama administration has been criticized for not bringing more high-profile prosecutions in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
"We've found that much of the conduct that led to the financial crisis was unethical and irresponsible," Holder said in prepared remarks.
"But we also have discovered that some of this behavior - while morally reprehensible - may not necessarily have been criminal."
Enumerating the Justice Department's successes, Holder said prosecutors in the last two years have indicted more that 2,100 people for mortgage-fraud related crimes, and has brought in about $4 billion in recoveries from healthcare related fraud in the past year.
Still, Holder acknowledged that the "perception" that the Justice Department has not done more to combat financial crime is "damaging."
"For some reason, all the things we have done have not somehow seeped into the American consciousness," he said, speaking in a question-and-answer session with Columbia University President Lee Bollinger.
"What people don't understand is we're not done with this," Holder said.
He also expressed concern over the U.S. Supreme Court's decision this week to take a case centered on whether a university can consider an applicant's race during the admission process.
Some legal analysts speculate the Supreme Court could have agreed to take the case in order to revisit or overturn a 2003 Supreme Court ruling allowing race to be considered as a factor in university admissions.
"I'm not sure what's changed since (the 2003 decision)," said Holder. "I'm not exactly sure what the court wants to look at."
Holder said the Obama administration was likely to support universities that want to keep race as a factor as the case proceeds before the Supreme Court.
(Reporting By Carlyn Kolker; Editing by Eric Beech)